Bruckner and Schoenberg in a potent pairing in Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Schoenberg and Bruckner: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 24.2.2022. (MSJ)

Franz Welser-Most conductiing Bruckner’s Ninth © Roger Mastroianni

Schoenberg – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op.42

Bruckner – Symphony No.9 in D minor

On the evening of the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Cleveland Orchestra delivered a potent program that could hardly have been more apt. Opening with a charged performance of a concerto written by a war refugee reflecting upon his experiences, it closed with a glowering symphony that yielded to peace only in its closing pages.

I was privileged in my early concertgoing years to hear Mitsuko Uchida’s 1990 debut with the Cleveland Orchestra. In that performance, she played Arnold Schoenberg’s serial piano concerto, and while I couldn’t entirely wrap my head around it then, I could nonetheless sense Uchida’s passionate commitment. A decade or so later, during another concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, Uchida included Schoenberg’s Three Pieces Op.11, a performance which once and for all opened up Schoenberg for me. In the green room after the concert, I walked up to the pianist and told her how moved I had been, and she grabbed me and gave me a bear hug in response!

Now, at the summit of a grand international career, Uchida has returned to Cleveland to give us her Schoenberg bear hug. The music remains uncompromising serialism – a detailed note from the pianist that goes into the work’s dodecaphonic technique was helpfully included in the program – but the tone row is arranged in such a way that it hints obliquely at traditional tonality. This gave Schoenberg a way to include expressive passages that counterbalance the obsessive and violent ones, and evidently reflected his thoughts about the turmoil of World War II which saw him flee Europe and relocate to the US where he wrote the piece.

Uchida is a profound artist who offers much more than a polished technique, glittering though it is. She directs that technique toward mining the depths of music, stretching both intellect and emotion. She makes Schoenberg speak more than any other pianist I have heard and, considering the often obsessive and convoluted manner of his writing, that is critically important. In an age where composers have broken serialism’s iron grip, this music could be written off as a relic of the past. Uchida made it clear that it speaks passionately of the human experience. In the first movement, which Schoenberg noted was ‘before the war’, she laid out the work’s tone rows elegantly, the orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst intertwining lyrically. The onset of war erupted in the violent second movement with volleys of piano against massed brass and percussion, leading to the bleak despair of the third movement lament. Then, with shaky resolve, life went on in the last movement, orchestra and soloist landing with a sense of relief on the final, almost-tonal chord. The piece was warmly received by the audience.

The pairing of Schoenberg with Bruckner’s Ninth was a brilliant bit of programming that drew one’s attention to just how close Anton Bruckner was to bursting the bonds of tonality in his final work. It is a brooding epic, and Welser-Möst led a broad yet lucid account. Bruckner has always been one of Welser-Möst’s strong suits, and he has only grown more authoritative over the years. Whereas many of the conductor’s performances tend toward swift tempos, his pace for the first movement of the Ninth was broad, allowing the music ample room to unfold. At the same time, there was utterly no pumping up of climaxes nor exaggerating of any expressive points. Nor was there any chilly reserve. Rather, Welser-Möst patiently unfolded the work’s vast structure but let the orchestra bring full force to climactic passages such as the end of the first movement, which was terrifying.

The Scherzo was malevolent and spiky, with no attempt being made to bury its dissonances in the rich textures. The even faster trio is notoriously difficult to pull off. Some conductors, like Carlo Maria Giulini, have taken liberties and slowed down the lyrical parts, which is not what Bruckner wrote. On the other hand, conductors who keep it all in tempo have a tendency to make it sound rigid. I have never heard anyone manage the trio as subtly as Welser-Möst did in this performance: the tempo never audibly sagged, yet he managed the turns into the more lyrical passages in such a way that they never felt restricted by the quick tempo. It was a lesson in how to make a score speak while remaining true to the letter.

The Adagio third movement was originally planned to be the penultimate movement of the work, yet despite extensive sketching, Bruckner was never able to finish the finale. Those sketches have been performed in various completions, and they are certainly interesting, but I have never found myself feeling that they are absolutely essential to bringing the work to a satisfying close. The piece works extraordinarily well in its unfinished three-movement form. Perhaps the key to making it work in three is allowing the slow movement enough breadth to counterbalance the epic first movement, and again Welser-Möst gave it ample room to speak.

And how eloquently it did speak. I have known and loved this music for many years but found myself even more moved here. When four of the nine French horns changed over to Wagner tubas and delivered the harmonically twisted passage with inverted chords, thoughts of both Schoenberg and war hovered oppressively close. With the openhearted warmth of the following string passage, the relief of tension brought sniffles from several audience members, including me.

The orchestra was in glorious voice, and the performance seemed to unfold in one long breath, culminating in the radiant closing pages. It couldn’t displace the real-world events unfolding on the other side of the globe, but for a few precious moments it brought a hall full of people a profound consolation.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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